The boss never mentioned that the fingerprint scanners weren’t tied to the back-up generator. I suppose that made sense. A security flaw that big wasn’t something to advertise. I wouldn’t even have noticed either, except that I forgot my keys in my office when I left for the day.
Six hours of overtime… If I didn’t get these projects under control, they’d nitpick my time management skills at my next performance review. Management never wanted to hear that they were overworking their employees. The convenient excuse was to blame the employee and chalk it up to a bad hire.
I ran back down the dark hallway and pressed my thumb against the scanner. Nothing happened. There wasn’t even a red light to indicate that the door was still locked. I scowled at my office door, at the sleek black nameplate backing the stark white block-letters of my name, “GERALDINE CRAW.” I slammed my fist against the cold, steel surface.
The door popped open.
Surprised, but relieved, I rushed in, tossed aside several stacks of sticky notes that created a neon rainbow on my desk, and scooped up my keys. There were more sticky notes plastered over every square inch of my windowless office — colour coded in a code only I knew how to read. My coworkers said I was disorganized and borderline insane, but it was organized chaos. They just couldn’t see it.
I ducked back out into the hall, shivering even in my fur-lined parka. The generators weren’t strong enough to back up the heating either. The whole building was as cold as the blizzard outside. I was the only one left, the phone lines were down, and there was no way home — I knew that without braving the outdoors to find my car completely submerged in snow. But I didn’t want to work another second, so I sank deep into denial and told myself I’d find a way through the storm.
I was halfway down the hall before I realized that all the fingerprint scanners were off. Not just mine. There were no locks on the doors that a physical key could open, which meant that the locking mechanism was completely tied to the fingerprint scanner. When those scanners lost power, the locks disengaged.
I tried three other doors before I was convinced. They all swung open without the slightest resistance. I peered through the door labelled “ASTER BRADS, FLOOR MANAGER.” The plaque on the wall behind his desk drilled the company motto into my head: “We build success from the ground up. Our success always starts with you.” My eyes drifted down to the line of filing cabinets at the back of the room. All those confidential files, there for the taking. They were locked, of course, but what office employee didn’t keep the keys to their cabinets in the first unlocked drawer of their desk?
I shook myself free of that thought like the good employee that I was and spun around. I cursed under my breath and ground my teeth together. The entire facility was one big security breach. I couldn’t leave. Even if the blizzard outside provided enough security to deter anyone crazier than me from trying to get in, if there was nothing keeping the locks on the offices engaged, the front doors wouldn’t be secured either. That meant anyone could just walk in.
“C’est complètement ridicule,” I muttered, heading back to my office. I always resorted to French when I was mad. I didn’t remember learning it, but it had always been there somehow. French was more effective at conveying cold, detached anger anyway.
I flicked the light switch inside my office out of habit before the general darkness reminded me that there was no power. Even if I’d wanted to put in some more overtime, I couldn’t have. All of my current projects were still in the sticky-note stage. I needed light to make sense of those, and a cell phone flashlight wasn’t exactly motivating.
It was so cold that my breaths formed visibly in front of my face. My teeth chattered together. There was a gas stove in the staff kitchen and I sprang right back out of my office chair as I remembered it. I could at least make some tea to keep me warm. I had to stay, but that didn’t mean I had to freeze to death.
The staff kitchen was the next floor down. I’d have to take the stairs. I always took the stairs anyway. The elevator got too crowded. I ran down the hall and swung myself down the steps by way of the glossy, red railing. My loafers sent echoes shuddering along the concrete stairwell. On the next floor, the faint emergency lights along the hall flickered slightly and I clutched my phone in my hand, ready to use the sickly LED flashlight if it came to it.
Of course, in order to get anywhere near the kitchen, I had to walk past four thick metal doors, labelled with distinct red “DO NOT ENTER” symbols. Only the CEO and Managing Partners were allowed in those rooms. If anyone else tried, not only would the fingerprint scanners deny entry — they’d set off a wail of alarms and security would storm the floor.
The fingerprint scanners there were dead, too. Those rooms had been an itch I couldn’t scratch for as long as I had worked for the company. We did anything they asked without question yet no one but the CEO and his inner circle ever got the full picture of what we were building. We weren’t allowed to talk to other departments about the projects we sent to them. We just did our part and moved on.
I almost stopped myself from trying the handle of the first room. I was so cold, my fingertips were starting to tingle with numbness. I wanted warmth. But I wanted vindication more, so I reached for the handle of the first room, moving quickly as though that would negate the fact that I was doing something illegal.
The room on the other side of the forbidden door was pitch black. The flickering emergency lights from the hallway behind me didn’t seem to reach into the gloom. I tapped at my phone and got the flashlight working before I could lose my nerve. Then I stepped inside.
The door swung shut behind me, blocking out even the distant wheeze of the blizzard but when I pushed down on the door handle with shaking fingers, it didn’t resist. I pulled the door back open just a crack. A faint strip of light struck a path on the floor and I took a steadying breath.
My exhale fogged the air in front of my face as I swung the beam of my flashlight over the room in a wide arc. The light caught on glass surfaces and glinted through murky depths. I took a step towards the first glass pillar full of water, or gas, or some nebulous liquid that seemed to crawl with an inner, greenish glow.
I couldn’t seem to wrap my brain around what was contained inside until I reached the glass and placed my palm against it. There on the other side was a perfectly preserved brain. The pink masses were gelled together like a clump of raw, ground beef. My eyes traced the maze-like lines of the organ. I don’t know how long I was mesmerized by it. I pulled my hand away and stepped back. When I swept my flashlight over the rows upon rows of identical glass pillars, I expected to find more brains. Instead, the beam flickered over various pieces of human anatomy — organs, handless arms and footless legs, armless hands and legless feet, lips, ears, hearts. If I had been a little less crazy, I might have vomited. Aster would have. He was squeamish over the smallest discomfort. Instead, my brain seemed to go numb. I felt like I was one of those pieces, suspended in fluid and floating in the middle of the room.
My lungs started to burn. I exhaled with a gasp and sucked in more air before rushing for the door. I spilled out into the hallway and braced my hands on my knees as though I’d run a marathon. The images of those glass pillars were seared into my mind like someone had hacked my brain and pasted the pictures over my eyeballs.
Eyeballs. There had been a single human eye floating in liquid, with the optic nerve trailing behind it. Like a tadpole with a little tail.
I told myself I would go to the kitchen, make my tea, and tell no one. I would dump those images in the recycling bin of my mind and then clear it so they were gone forever.
Instead, my feet took me to Door #2. I pushed it open and started to believe the whispers that I was just a little bit insane. Anyone else would have left these doors closed tight. But that first glimpse behind Door #1 had shown me the piece of a pattern in my mind and if I didn’t check to see for myself, I’d never be satisfied. I wouldn’t get another chance like this.
I was expecting glass pillars again, not coffins. The glass cases behind Door #2 lay on long, rectangular pedestals in neat rows. I only had to peer into the first coffin to confirm my suspicions. The body parts from the first room had been perfected and molded together here, to form full bodies. They lay behind the glass, eyes open and staring unseeing through the gently swirling liquid. My nose stung with cold, but also with the distant smell of antiseptic that always lingered in the facility. Formaldehyde was a common enough ingredient in any lab. I hadn’t even thought of the possibility that it was being used for anything like this.
How naive I had been. They had hired me for my naiveté. In the interview, one of their final questions was whether or not I could do my part without asking too many questions. I had sat in a metal chair in the middle of a dimly lit room while the CEO and Manager Aster hovered over me. I hadn’t had cause to ask questions back then. That wasn’t the kind of employee they wanted. And here I was, sneaking information with insatiable curiosity. When had I started to question them?
My steps were more controlled when I headed back out into the hall this time. I breathed measured, even breaths like I did when I worked. My brain flew through calculations. Everything fit together like a puzzle — a puzzle I had always known we were building, only I hadn’t understood which part was mine.
Now I could see the picture on the box the puzzle had come in. I knew the end-goal. I didn’t really need to look into Doors #3 and 4 to be sure, but evidence wasn’t based on guesswork. I walked into each room to confirm everything and then carried down the hall toward the kitchen.
The soft blue lino floors gave way to white kitchen tiles. My feet took me straight to the gas stove against the far wall lined with windows. Snow had piled up just beneath the window ledges. I couldn’t see anything beyond the blizzard. I took the kettle off the burner, filled it with fresh water, and turned the knob on the stove. The clicking of the burner lighting danced in time with the metronome of my thoughts. Flame burst to life. I stared out the windows without really seeing, just like the bodies behind Door #2.
Door #3 had revealed a room full of bodies on hospital beds, hooked up to life-support. Door #4 led to a room that was empty except for a cold, metal chair. I’d figured that out before I walked in. They always scheduled interviews for new hires on days when the facility was empty. And everyone knew they interviewed new hires somewhere on the same floor as the staff kitchen.
I moved away from the stove and found two sleek, black mugs in a cupboard above the sink, emblazoned with the company logo of a human brain powered by a wall plug. I set them on the counter as the kettle started to steam at the spout. No screaming. Not yet.
I picked two tea bags from a box of generic green tea good for brain health, also emblazoned with the company logo, and stuck them in the mugs. I carried them to one of the round tables and sat so that I could still stare out the windows.
I didn’t hear the kettle scream. My brain didn’t react until it clicked open, letting the spout pour a billow of steam into the air. When I looked at the stove, Aster was there. He picked up the kettle and carried it to the table. I waved at him with a little smile, just like always.
“Honey?” he asked me. He was holding the little bear-shaped plastic bottle. He brought it over even though I shook my head and poured steaming water into both mugs. He squeezed a generous stream of honey into his own and finally sat down, mirroring me. He clasped his mug between both hands. A lick of black hair curled over his forehead. He had to be in his forties, but there was no sign of balding. His skin was as smooth as if he’d never seen acne.
I sighed and looked down into the steam, letting it fog my vision.
“You’re not surprised to see me,” he said.
“No,” I answered. Simple. Direct. I could see how I might have been considered the perfect employee. I didn’t ask questions unless I needed clarification on my instructions. I was as efficient as could be. When had my naivete given way to curiosity? Why did some brains do that while others were content to just sit in their ignorance for their whole lives? Those were the answers the facility hadn’t yet discovered.
“When did I start…” I frowned, grasping for the word. “Changing?”
Aster reached out and patted the back of my hand. His palm was almost scalding from being pressed against his mug of tea. “The human brain never stops changing, Geraldine. It was only ever a matter of time.”
“Is that what happened to Pete and Dominique?” Those two had been a part of the facility for years before I arrived. They both left last summer. Only, now I realized that “leaving” this company meant something very different than handing in a resignation letter.
I looked up at Aster’s face one more time. I was about to find out exactly how leaving worked. He offered a perfected smile, arching one corner of his mouth and letting the warmth of it reach his eyes. I was willing to bet that he was one of the ones who would never leave. His brain didn’t want curiosity. He didn’t change.
“Don’t be sad, Geraldine,” he said. “It’s perfectly natural to phase out of the company.”
“It won’t happen to you,” I muttered.
“No,” he agreed. “But that’s the thing. Your brain wouldn’t want my job even if you were offered it, and mine wouldn’t want yours. Eventually, some machines reach their end-of-life and their parts become useful for other projects. Humans are more or less the same. Our success really does start with you, you know.”
We finished our tea in silence, watching the steam curl between us until we were down to the dregs. Aster got up first. He told me to leave the mugs on the table. Someone would clean them up in the morning. Then, he led me down the hall to a door at the end that I had never been curious about. The white block letters read “DISPOSAL.”
I could have fought him, but my brain wasn’t wired that way. I followed him all the way down into the basement, through a thick metal door with a fingerprint scanner that did light up when Aster pressed his thumb against it. It was my time — that was all.
When the company built us from the ground up, it made sure that we would all be able to come to terms with our own expiry dates. They had erased the human fear of death from us all. I didn’t even shudder when Aster sat me down in another metal chair and pushed my head forward, sweeping my curly brown hair away so that the back of my neck was exposed. He unhooked a cord from the plain, concrete wall and dragged it over the ground behind me until he stood with one hand on my shoulder. I guess I had always known that the outlet was there, just at the base of my brainstem. Of course, knowing and believing are two different things to the human mind. Another mystery for the facility to unravel. Maybe when they repurposed the pieces of me that were still usable, I’d have a hand — or a kidney, or a heart, or even just a toe — in solving it.
“Thank you for your service, Geraldine Craw. We look forward to more success from you.”
He plugged me in. They couldn’t risk damaging a useful piece of me, so they’d suck awareness out of my chassis and then dismantle my parts and fit them somewhere where they’d be useful. Anyone else might have struggled, but I hadn’t been wired to struggle. It was almost like falling asleep, very slowly, with a complete understanding that I would never wake up again.
I breathed one last sigh and gave myself back to the facility that had stitched me together.